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16 - The Rise of Middle Classes in Southeast Asia

from Southeast Asian Societies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 June 2017

Takashi Shiraishi
Affiliation:
Institute of Developing Economies-Japan External Trade Organization
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Summary

Postwar economic development over half a century has given rise to substantial urban middle classes in Southeast Asia. Constituted through rapid global and regional industrialization driven by foreign direct investments and finance capital, their horizontal solidarity is dependent on, but no longer confined only to, their ability to express themselves politically through the state and culturally as a nation. Because the middle classes are constituted not solely through a homogeneous national culture, but rather through networks of markets, global cultural and financial flows, middle class consciousness is fostered through interactions between national governments, domestic and transnational markets. These people share a lot in common among their professional lives and their lifestyles, in fashion, leisure and entertainment, in their aspirations and dreams. The kind of life they espouse and live carries social and environmental costs. Their survival and expansion as a class are largely dependent on the economic performance of their respective countries, which are increasingly intertwined with and influenced by the regional and global economy. Above all, the regional market of which the middle classes are the main consumers mediates new forms of national and regional identities that can potentially advance regional integration.

What distinguishes the postwar emergence of the middle classes is, as I argued elsewhere more extensively, the extent to which the formation of these classes has been shaped by the military, intellectual and cultural hegemony of the United States in the region (see Shiraishi 2006). The waves of middle class formation took place in postwar Japan, the so-called Newly Industrialized Economies (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore), and Southeast Asia within the context of an East Asian regional system fashioned under U.S. hegemony.

The creation of middle classes was part of the American informal empire's ideological vision to contain and combat communism. But of equal importance is the role of 20th century American middle class formation in mediating the construction and self-representation of the middle classes in Asia. Unlike their counterparts in Britain, who defined themselves in relation to the aristocracy, American middle classes that came into being in the 1920s took as the object of their social consumption and self-representation the idea of ‘the standard package’ (Matsubara 2000, pp. 52–58).

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Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
Print publication year: 2015

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